The strength of any structure lies in its foundation. For most NHL franchises that foundation starts between the pipes. The Minnesota Wild sent a clear message on Monday that it does not wish to start any major restructuring of that foundation when it signed 35-year old goaltender, Niklas Backstrom to a 3-year, $10.25 million contract extension. Backstrom has spent his entire 7-year career with the Wild since the team signed the Finnish-born netminder as a free agent. All he has done is become the franchise's all time leader in wins (184), and is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL over that span ranking 10th in wins, 8th in shutouts (28) and 11th in goals against average (2.43GAA). So he deserved an extension right? Perhaps. One thing is for certain he did take the ever popular 'hometown' discount to stay with the Wild as the soon to be unrestricted free agent could've perhaps made more money elsewhere to stay with Minnesota. The Wild stalwart just recently started skating again after suffering a sports hernia injury during pre-game warmups in the Wild's 1st playoff game against Chicago that kept him out of the entire series. Backstrom insists that he feels good and that he should be just fine coming into the 2013-14 season.
Did Josh Harding and Mikko Koivu have something to do with the re-signing of Niklas Backstrom?
However, any kind of signing often sends a message about the current state of the team. About whether ownership has confidence or lacks confidence in a particular area of their team. Over the last two seasons I guess you could say the Wild's management hasn't shown a tremendous amount of confidence in some of the players that have been here lately. There have been some massive changes in the roster, and just put in perspective just consider all of the players that have donned a Wild jersey the last two seasons that are no longer with the club. Darroll Powe, Marek Zidlicky, Erik Christensen, Kurtis Foster, Mike Lundin, Colton Gillies, Nick Johnson, Matt Kassian, Guillaume Latendresse, Jed Ortmeyer, Warren Peters, Nick Schultz, Brad Staubitz, Casey Wellman, and Greg Zanon. I could have included a bunch more players who got their 'cup of coffee' with the Wild during the last two seasons but you get the point, the team has had lots of change to its roster as it hopes to find a blend that allows the team to be a divisional / conference powerhouse. No doubt there will be more names to add to this list this summer but what are the underlying meanings of the decision to bring back Backstrom?
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Josh Harding's health
Probably the most compelling reason for the Wild to sign Backstrom to a 3-year extension was the health of its back up Josh Harding. Harding missed most of the abbreviated 2012-13 season battling with symptoms related to his struggle with Multiple Sclerosis. He played reasonably well in the playoffs but not quite good enough to overcome Minnesota's lack of offense. Yet, the organization obviously does not feel his health is that stable he can be the #1 goalie. With Backstrom tied down for an average of $3.42 million per season and Harding at $1.9 million the Wild are committed to the tune of a little more than $5 million in cap space between the pipes which seems like a bargain compared to the $6 million in cap space Backstrom's previous deal ate up alone.
Backstrom's resigning also implies that Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson are not quite ready for primetime and both shall have extensive seasoning in Des Moines. There is no need to rush them and if Harding's (or Backstrom's) health continues to fluctuate they will probably get a few opportunities with big club. With Backstrom nearing the end of his career the Wild will have to try to spread out its share of starts to ease the strain. Backstrom is always given major kudos for his meticulous preparation, but the team must try to ease his workload wherever it can. Harding certainly deserved to win the Masterton Award, but the team needs more than just a feel good story. It needs quality starts to gain the confidence of the Wild coaching staff so they can break up the amount of starts for Backstrom.
Mikko Koivu's ego
This might upset some Wild fans but its no real secret the team's captain Mikko Koivu has a bit of a temper. Whether its a retaliatory penalty or blaming the fairly minor media coverage and its alleged negativity for adding to the team's struggles his emotions can blur his understanding of his environment. The team has tried to dance around their captain's ego and gone out of their way not to upset him. Despite many indications the team should shake up its lines and consider (gasp) of playing Koivu on the 2nd time the team refuses to even address that question as though the notion of it is an insult. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo dismissed that question multiple times, perhaps fearing a pouty captain.
So did the Wild consider the feelings of their captain as they made the re-signing of Niklas Backstrom a 'priority'. A few years ago Koivu aired his unhappiness with then coach Todd Richards for taking fellow Finn Antti Miettinen off of his line. Shortly after Koivu's public complaint Miettinen was returned to the top line. With Koivu signed through the 2017-18 season the team may try to avoid hurting the feelings of its franchise player.
Either way, the decision to soldier on with Backstrom may remind someone of the common analogy applied to insanity where you do the same thing over and over and expect different results. I am not saying that Niklas Backstrom is the reason the Wild seemed to be mired somewhere between ok and not quite good enough but if you really expect to change the direction of the franchise (which seems to be flatlining yet again) wouldn't a change between the pipes be a good way to do it? Especially if you keep the same soft blueline intact. Buyouts are probably looming but will the team really end being better? Getting Backstrom for a little over half of his previous deal is good when consider what starting goalies make but was that the best plan? Whatever the reason to re-sign Backstrom, you only have to wonder in 3 years whether the team will be in this quagmire and if it is will someone amongst the Minnesota media circle call it out for what it is, insanity.